Iain Gibb

by Vivienne Kenrick

Sometimes, depending on where he has been and where he is going, Iain Gibb may be seen dragging a wheeled suitcase along a Tokyo street. People who wonder may be surprised to learn that inside the suitcase are a leg of lamb, bagpipes and a complete Scottish outfit. The lamb is Iain’s shopping, to be converted later into his favorite dinner dish. The bagpipes and the outfit are for his performing, when Iain turns himself into an authentic Scot professionally playing the pipes.

Iain is getting to be well known and in demand to pipe at various events all over Japan. Recently he piped at the Ginza World Music Festival. He has piped for the prime minister of Canada and the first minister of Scotland. In 2002 he piped in a large international group on Tartan Day in New York City, with others piping and drumming “Tunes of Glory” in memory of those lost on Sept. 11, 2001.

Those who work with Iain describe him as an all-around “good guy,” unfailingly cooperative and helpful, patient and even-tempered. He was born in Glasgow, the city that gives him his claim to a kilt and sporran and pipes. When he was 2, his father, a doctor, decided to emigrate to Ontario in Canada. Moved again to Vancouver in a family expanded to four children, Iain was still very young when he went to his first piping lessons. “I found my father’s old practice chanter, used to learn fingering and tunes, in the piano stool at home,” he said. “My father never got past the introductory stages of the chanter, but he was very keen to get me a tutor. He found one who taught the very basics, very strictly, very well.” The weekly lessons involved Iain in bus journeys of an hour each way. “I plodded along, and eventually got my first set of pipes after my first year. That was a fine reward for all the practice and commuting time. But then I began to lose interest. None of my friends played the pipes, and at that time I hadn’t yet joined a band.”

When the family moved to Nova Scotia, which was “definitely bagpipes-friendly,” Iain joined a pipe band and picked up his piping education again. He played in parades and festivals, for Highland Games and Remembrance Day events. He went away to boarding school, where “there was a highland regiment cadet corps but no pipe band to speak of. I played at ceremonies, and at an occasional funeral. By grade 12, I really lost interest, and eventually donated my pipes to the school,” he said.

He went to university, then left Canada to travel. He chose at first to stay and work in Scotland before moving on through Europe to the Mediterranean. In Greece he met a young man from Holland who suggested to him that he should visit Japan. He came here 15 years ago.

To support himself, Iain taught English before giving the work up for a part-time job in a bar. As a bartender, he began to learn Japanese, mastering it quickly and well. He became a voice actor, and linked up with theatrical groups. He began training in improvisational theater. He said: “In 1998 I was watching an NHK documentary about a Japanese accordion player. The player said how he was ridiculed when he was growing up for playing such a ‘geeky’ instrument. Even old ladies on the bus made fun of him. His comments resonated with me, and I decided to play the pipes again. I ordered a nice set via the Internet, and began to practice.”

That year Iain took part in a performer and teacher workshop with the Loose Moose Theater in Calgary, Alberta. In Osaka he played with the Ramsay Pipe Band, and as a free-lancer made himself available for weddings and special events all over Japan. He teaches workshops in English and in Japanese.

He is married now. His wife is a costume maker, and the couple have two small children. For the last three years, Iain and his family have been calling Yokohama home.

Iain is often in Tokyo. He performs regularly at the Tokyo Comedy Store, where he applies his finely honed humor in improvisations. He has appeared on stage for Tokyo International Players, and builds sets for TIP performances. He is now putting his skills and interests on to a firm footing by forming his own company. “The company offers set design and group building,” Iain said. “My wife helps with costumes. We have many clients who are street performers, and we are getting busier and busier.”